Brandy Barnes was driving on I-95 near Dunn when the idea for Diabetes Sisters came to her.
Barnes, a Durham mom of one, pulled over on the side of the road, got out a notebook and began to jot down her ideas. It would be a website, there would be blogs, maybe some kind of annual conference. It would be a place where women with diabetes could come together to talk, vent, share and support each other.
"The whole point was to connect and learn from each other," Barnes tells me.
Barnes knows the need for women with diabetes to find support. At 15, the active, healthy high school basketball player was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which accounts for about 5 percent to 10 percent of diagnosed diabetes in the United States. Scientists don't know what causes the autoimmune disease, but they think genetic and environmental factors, even viruses, could be involved in Type 1.
The diagnosis changed her life, forcing her to think about every morsel and sip that she takes. But during a hospital stay when she was first diagnosed, she decided she'd make it a positive part of her life. She decided that if she were going to have to live with diabetes, there must be a good reason.
"I did have control over how I was going to handle it and present it to the world," she remembers thinking in her hospital bed.
Barnes went on to lead a diabetes support group when she was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. She worked in clinical research and eventually pharmaceutical sales, selling diabetes medications. A sales meeting was the reason she was driving on I-95 that fall day in 2007.
A month later, she mentioned her idea to her husband Chris. Before she was done explaining it, he stopped her and gave her his full support.
Diabetes Sisters launched in January 2008 and the response was immediate. Women came to the site. Word spread through the network she'd created as a pharmaceutical sales representative.
Today, Diabetes Sisters has 10,000 members around the country with more than a dozen support groups for women, including some in the Triangle. The site also includes blogs, health information, expert advice, forums and stories about women and diabetes.
Her goal is to connect, but also put a healthy face on diabetes. She wants to show women that they can live a happy, productive life with the disease.
"Because diabetes poses one of the greatest threats to women’s health, it is time to get serious about addressing women’s unique challenges with the disease," she said. "Women with diabetes have faced increased health risks such as depression, cardiovascular disease, eating disorders, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol for far too long. Most Americans -- and even women with diabetes themselves -- are unaware that these increased risks even exist."
While men have diabetes too, Barnes said it's especially important for women to talk and share. The disease can be affected by hormones. Women's life stages, including puberty, pregnancy and menopause, can all make the disease more difficult to manage.
For Barnes, her pregnancy with her daughter was a particularly rough patch as she had to check her blood sugar 15 to 20 times a day. She worried constantly that her health was having an impact on her unborn child growing inside of her.
"I felt like I wasted a lot of the great parts of pregnancy," she said. "They were secondary to the constant anxiety."
Now Barnes is gearing up for Diabetes Sisters' third annual conference in Raleigh. The event is May 18 to May 20 at the downtown Raleigh Marriott City Center.
The conference, which is drawing people from around the country, will include exercise sessions, workshops and other gatherings. Natalie Strand, winner of The Amazing Race in 2010, will be the keynote speaker .She was part of the first winning female team and the first person with diabetes to win the TV competition.
The conference also includes the Orange:Will Diabetes Awareness Walk in downtown Raleigh on May 20. Barnes invites the public to participate in the walk or help raise money as a virtual walker. Among the virtual walkers this year is author and celebrity chef Paula Deen, who is raising money for programming and research to support women with diabetes through her personal fundraising page.
For details and registration information about the conference and the walk, click here.
Barnes would like to see Diabetes Sisters to continue to grow and connect women with diabetes. But thinking back to that day on the side of I-95, she never dreamed it would get this big.
"It's more than I envisioned," she said. "It has grown in so many ways."
To hear more from Barnes, watch my video interview with her. Learn all about Diabetes Sisters on its website.
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